On believing people and building communities: an interview with Taylor Edelhart

For Decent Company February: BODY, Taylor Edelhart will be presenting a segment of a new play about ending up inside the body of Taylor Swift. Taylor sat down with Decent Company producing director Josh Boerman to talk about the possibilities of sci-fi and their drive to create unapologetically queer art.

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JB: You’re doing this piece, which is sort of the beginning of a larger project that has been in the works for a while.

TE: It’s true.

JB: And what is this project? Why is it important to you, and what does it all mean?

TE: This piece is called SWIFT, or Miss Ohio. It is a queer remix of a classic sci-fi short story called “All You Zombies” by Robert Heinlein, which everyone reading should go read as soon as they’re doing reading this interview. It’s ten minutes, you can find it for free on the internet, and it will melt your brain.

It’s super great, and it’s all about paradoxes and time travel. And I’m remixing it to be about a bunch of things. One of the things is Taylor Swift, but it’s not just about Taylor Swift. It’s also about several other people named Taylor, including myself. And gender and the year 2016 and gun violence and body swapping.

A lot of sci-fi ideas around the relationship between gender and bodies is just, like, tone-deaf at best and actively transphobic at worst.

JB: Yes. Super duper didactic.

TE: Super shitty. Very intersex-phobic as well. The original story that this piece is based on, one of the things that really struck me when I reread it right before I started writing the piece that I hadn’t noticed the first time: the first time I read it, I was much younger, I wasn’t really thinking about things. And since then I’ve figured out my gender, and reading it was just really struck by how much the original story relies on the idea that intersex conditions are not okay, that we need to fix them.

And that the second something happens to your body, your gender automatically changes, even though that’s not how that works. 

JB: Right. And in sci-fi, going back to sort of traditional conventions, a lot of stories and TV episodes and stuff like that, they all have this idea that the amazing thing is, like, “This is a matriarchal society where women control everything. It’s the flip side.”

TE: Shocking!

JB: But it’s only that. It’s strictly an inversion that doesn’t take into account everything that falls in between.

TE: It’s true. And an actual matriarchy would, I guess, oppress men. But that’s hard to think about because we live in a patriarchal society. I would need to write an essay to answer that question. Yeah.

So there’s a lot in sci-fi. And I really love sci-fi, and there’s been a lot happening in the sci-fi world in the past couple years about, like, who gets to own it. And I’ve been thinking about reclaiming sci-fi, and about how important sci-fi can be for queer people and trans people to sort of see themselves and feel like they have a place.

So first and foremost, I’m using this show to tell a cool story about me flipping through several people’s bodies and traveling through time and going in future pods and meeting scary pretty and making friends and all that other good stuff.

But the sort of, like, larger macro drive of the show is to make a really queer piece of sci-fi. And to give it to people, and for there to be a layer of the piece that will speak specifically to trans and queer people and to be like, “Here’s how sci-fi can help you feel seen.”

JB: Sure. And that’s something that I actually was going to ask next, is what to you does it mean to have a distinctly queer voice in, say, a sci-fi context? Or a theatrical context, for that matter, more generally?

TE: We just need more queer voices in all the contexts, in general. And I think specifically, queer voices that are not trying to, like, give a tutorial to cis people. I’ve been thinking a lot about tutorials lately and how even as people are trying to tell better trans stories— a lot of them aren’t, but the few people that are, they have to build in a certain amount of storytelling that’s, like, just getting cis people up to speed about, “This is what it means to be trans, generally.” Like, “We’re gonna demonstrate this behavior that people do.”

Which slows the piece down at best, and it can be very damaging and go the wrong way at worst. Southern Comfort at the Public Theater, they were having characters dead name each other in the show. To show, like, “This person used to be called this, which was a girl’s name.”

JB: Oh yeah, you would never do that in real life.

TE: And also, trans people don’t do that. You don’t do that to each other. It’s a horrible thing to do to someone. I’m trying to think of an analogy to something, but that never works. Just, it’s a shitty, shitty thing to do. It’s a shitty thing to do when cis people do it to you, which happens a lot.

But it’s not a thing that trans people— like, when I meet another trans person, I’m not like, “Hey, what did your name used to be?”

JB: (laughs) “What did your name used to be?” Yeah, no, that’s not a thing.

TE: And you also should not do that, person reading this. Don’t fucking do it. So I think we need more queer voices, and I think we need especially more queer voices, supported by cis and queer people, that is for trans and queer people specifically. And the way you know it’s for trans and queer people specifically is that you don’t need to talk about it.

That’s something I’m dealing with in this piece, where I sort of throw you into the fact that I am a woman at the start of the piece, but I wasn’t before.

JB: Right. And then you end up sort of subverting the idea of the tutorial with this queer break.

TE: Yeah. With a queer break. And that’s the only thing that cis people get the entire show, and I have to get onstage and do embarrassing things in order to earn it. And the rest of the show I just, like, assume that people know. I think we need to start working under that assumption more. Instead of teaching people, we just need to assume that they already know what we’re talking about.

JB: Just keep up.

TE: Just keep up. I’m setting my bar here, you have to jump. If you’re offended by that, you haven’t learned enough yet.

JB: Well, and it applies to all variety of art, right? I mean, I saw Jitney at Manhattan Theatre Club, the new Broadway production of that. And one of the things that’s so great about August Wilson’s voice as a writer is that if you are not familiar with sort of the African-American vernacular, that style of speaking, you have to tune your ear to it. And if you can’t keep up with it, that’s just too bad.

TE: Too bad. Too fuckin’ bad.

JB: ‘Cause that’s what they’re gonna talk like, because that’s that world.

TE: Yeah. That’s something I felt— obviously, comparing race and gender is always a tricky subject, but I had a similar experience when I was watching Luke Cage. Great show. The first episode, the very first thing that happens is that a bunch of black men who all know each other really well are in a barbershop talking about basketball.

And I just had a really cool moment of watching this and being like, “I have no idea what they’re talking about.” (Josh laughs) And I don’t follow sports, so maybe if I followed sports—

JB: Right, so it’s like you’re lost on multiple levels, basically.

TE: Yeah. But I really think that folks with privilege across the board need to find— there’s a really particular joy you can find in watching something and realizing that you don’t know what people are talking about.

And I think we should be trying to seek out opportunities to feel that way more. Because I think when we feel that way, it means that we’re learning. Learning is good. And also, it means that more different perspectives and viewpoints are being put forth, and they’re not all being mediated to ours. And that’s really good.

JB: Right. And, too, what it does is it encourages you, or requires you, to actually listen.

TE: Yeah, and work a little bit. Which, people think that working for their art is a bad thing, but when used well, it’s not only good for you, it’s really fun. It feels great. You just have to have a little humility. And that can be hard sometimes.

JB: And just, yeah, to open yourself to the whole range of potential experiences and say, rather than going in here and being prescriptive about what my expectations are and expecting it to meet me, I’m going to go in and meet it instead.

TE: Exactly. My dream is to make theatre with trans and queer cast members, like, almost exclusively, but that is geared towards a queer/trans audience. And to then have a combination of cis and trans people come and see the show, for trans people to really get, like, a whole other level of experience out of it because it’s being made for them.

And for cis people to just listen and watch and absorb. Because theoretically, that is what the theatre is all about. But because privilege, so many people think that theatre is just supposed to reflect things that they already know and understand.

We haven’t really set people up for the understanding that if you really wanna, like, do the bold risk-taking stuff all theatres talk about, you’re gonna feel a little lost for a little bit. And I get it, human beings love being told what to do. People love feeling safe. The more privilege you have, the better safety makes you feel.

But in this political climate, we all need to work on feeling a little less comfy all the time, but to still feel secure and safe. And I think the theatre’s a good place to start feeling that.

JB: I agree. It’s interesting, too, the idea of always feeling safe, always feeling inside your “safe space.” You so often hear that tossed out as a pejorative toward people who actually are trying to make new things that push the boundaries. “Ooh, are you triggered? Ooh, do you need your safe space?”

TE: Yeah. And it’s usually said by people who, like, it’s because you’re uncomfortable. I’m like, “Respect your pronouns,” and people are like, “Safe space.” (Josh laughs) And it’s like, “Wait a second. I’m trying to give you more things to do.”

JB: Right. Exactly. This makes you feel—

TE: This is uncharted territory for you. I’m already safe. I know how my pronouns work. (laughs) I feel great by myself. You are the one who’s dealing with new information here. And again, new information can be scary, but gender-neutral pronoun, which has existed in the language for thousands of years, is not it, my friends.

JB: Because also, you are under no obligation to give anybody the time of day. Like, if a person is just straight-up bein’ a dick, you don’t have to—

TE: Yeah. I’m very shocked by how many cis people, when I’m like, “Here are my pronouns,” are like, “You can’t force me to do that.” And I’m like, “Gurl, I know.” (Josh laughs) What do you think I’m gonna do, reach out and, like, try to move your mouth around and make you say the pronoun every time you get it wrong?

No. There’s literally nothing I can do if you if you decide to be an asshole and not respect my pronouns, not respect my gender. Nothing I can do. I’m just hoping you’ll be a fucking decent human being about it. All I can give you is the hope that I have.

And that’s a big piece of what this show is about as well. All I can do is tell you what happened and hope that you are good to me after I tell you, you know? Which sucks. It goes against a lot of other parts of my nature, which are like, “Self-sufficiency! I don’t need other people for anything!”

It’s a weird thing about being trans. Not for all trans people, but for me, because I went through my whole life being like, “Nope, I’m a cis person,” and in college realized that was not the case. And again, the more privilege you have, the more you think you can exist as an island separated from other people.

But when you’re trans and when you really need other people’s cooperation to sort of project who you are to the rest of the world, you realize, like, this is society. This is what people keep talking about. You need other people’s help in order to get this done. Which can suck, you know? If people were good about it, it wouldn’t suck. There’s a lot of pain and suffering that comes from the fact that gender is a social construct that is determined individually but projected societally.

JB: Well, my hypothesis is that if you are sort of, as you say, cushioned by your privilege enough and you don’t make the effort to listen or connect with people who are outside of that sort of sphere, that bubble if you wanna call it that? You, the person who is sufficiently privileged, can keep living that life without having to worry about the consequences of that.

Like, I know that is true for myself. Being, like, a white dude, there are a lot of things I can—

TE: You could fuck up my pronouns until the cows come home and nothing bad would ever happen to you.

JB: Exactly right. There are so many things I can get away with. I try not to, because I don’t want to be a terrible person.

TE: Good job. Ten cis points to you.

JB: (laughs) Yay! But seriously, you know, we don’t— because of the fact that power structures are the way they are, and they propagate themselves, it’s so hard to break that down.

TE: Yeah. And that’s another reason I think sci-fi is helpful for queer people, is that there’s a lot of cis people who are willing to buy into, like, “Oh, Star Trek isn’t real, but I can understand how all this works.” And it’s like, “Okay, well, you think my gender isn’t real, but if I explain to you how it works, why can’t you buy into that?”

Like, why— how am I different from Star Trek, imaginary cis person? I’ve been thinking a lot lately. A lot of experiences I’ve had not just with gender but with mental health in my life. Like, I have a lot of things going on, some of which I wouldn’t believe were a thing unless I had them, you know?

Like, having social anxiety is, like, being around other people for too long in certain settings makes me feel like my throat wants to close up. If I didn’t have that, I would be like, “That sounds absolutely preposterous, and I don’t believe it happens to people.”

JB: “You just don’t wanna hang out. Let’s be honest.” That’s, like, the—

TE: Yeah, exactly. Like, “You just wanna— you need to sleep more.” Or, like, “You just don’t like me.” But since I have it, I’m like, “Oh shit, it’s a real thing.” So I’ve been working a lot, and I’ve—well, and who needs my advice—but if someone were to ask me for advice, I would say try believing people first, you know?

Obviously, sometimes that will not work out. Obviously, sometimes people will be lying. Don’t believe the president. He’s giving you no reason to believe that what he’s saying is based in any sort of reality. But when I hear something— and I’m still such a dick about some things sometimes—I still hear things and I’m like, “Absolutely not. You’re just being full of yourself.”

But, like, just try believing people first. The tacky thing of, like, imagine being in their shoes for just five seconds before you do what so many people I know do, which is to automatically be like, “There’s no way that can be true.”

It’s been interesting to see when people don’t want to believe it’s true because it’s inconvenient for them, and when they don’t wanna believe it’s true because they’re actually very caring people who don’t wanna believe that there’s so much pain in the world, you know?

JB: What do you mean by that?

TE: Like, I feel with the white folks in my family who I’ve talked to about Black Lives Matter and about police brutality, there’s a certain segment of people who don’t wanna think about it because they’re like, “I’m busy, it’s inconvenient for me. I have this set way of looking at the world, and you’re challenging that and I don’t wanna think about it.”

But the other half are people who—and this, I think, is sort of the category I fall into and I’m trying to work my way out of, because it’s ultimately unhelpful—is like, “I believe I’m a good person and I don’t like seeing other people be hurt.” So to acknowledge that there’s a whole population of people who suffers greatly on a regular basis that I somehow didn’t know about, even though I’m a sensitive person who genuinely cares about the well-being of others? That is so painful for me that I can’t deal with it.

But that still makes it about you.

JB: Exactly, ’cause that pain is nothing compared to the pain of living that experience.

TE: To what they go through every day. And so much of activism is seeing those feelings inside yourself. Not burying them, because that doesn’t do anything, but seeing them and being like, “Oh shit, I do care, but I didn’t know.” And then being like, “Cool, now that I know, how can I fix it so that everybody can feel safer and better?”

So much of everything is about ego. I feel like such a snob saying this. I’m wearing a turtleneck right now.

JB: You look like Steve Jobs. Black turtleneck. (laughs)

TE: And it’s ironic I’m talking about ego, because so much of my work is solo-based, and this piece is the most about me.

JB: Yes, it’s very autobiographical.

TE: It’s literally— I mean, it’s an autobiographical sci-fi piece, which is something I’m really interested in. But yeah, this piece is truly about me, myself, and I, in more ways than one. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what is the point of me doing solo work anymore.

And the closest I’ve gotten is that as a very openly transgender queer person who looks like what most people think cis people look like, and who attracts predominantly cis audiences, the best thing I can do is to help cis people take the focus off of themselves and really make them look at a trans person. And to be like, “Look at me. I am trans. And if you thought I was cis but you know that I’m trans now, you have to understand that we’re fucking everywhere.”

And to help them get past that block of being like, “Oh my god, me me me me,” to help them work through that in the course of telling my story, and focusing on that instead, I think.

I just figured that out now. I might tell you something else different next week. (laughs)

To purchase tickets for Decent Company February: BODY, click here.

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